Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks do such a masterful job playing Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee that we forget that we are watching top-notch actors. Their familar faces meld into the Kay and Ben, the historic figures “The Post” makes them. We are reminded that homage should be paid to those who stand up for democratic ideals, freedom of the press being one of the most important for any truth-seeking citizen.
Graham and Bradlee, publisher and editor, respectively, had to decide in 1971 whether to risk the newspaper and prison to publish classified history. The films “All The President’s Men” ( 1976 ) and “ Spotlight” ( 2015 ) have used the same material. “The Post” holds its own in this “fake news” Trump-time.
The Pentagon Papers and the story of the New York Times and The Washington Post in publishing them is recreated under Stephen Spielberg’s expert direction. The pacing, the personal relationships, the networking of sources, and the egos and the character of pure journalism pervade.
Four American Presidents misled the nation by championing the Viet Nam war. Daniel Ellsberg photocopied 4,000 of the 7,000 classified government documents housed at the Rand Corporation which systematically showed that Congress and the public were kept from the truth. As his colleagues recalled, “ he ‘doved’ pretty hard.” I hope the 86 year-old Ellsberg enjoys this film.
For Streep’s pregnant pauses, her yelps, her small gestures like straightening her belt all make Graham so real. She both snores at her desk and empathizes with the families of dead soldiers. Streep can deliver the punch line softly: “ I’m asking your advise, not your permission.” Likewise, Hanks adds a toughness and an insight to editor Bradlee that show how competitiveness was part of the journalistic trade. When Kay says, “ Ben sets his mind to plunder” , Hanks is believable as a Viking. Tracy Letts is memorable as a conservative board member. Daniel Ellsberg, played understatedly by Matthew Rhys; and Bruce Greenwood, playing an almost physical double to Robert McNamara, further perfect the casting.
Boardrooms, newsrooms, closeted offices, restaurants, and private residences keep the settings interesting. The lino-type machines and the hand-tied bundles of newsprint are nostalgic, ( as are Thom McCann shoe boxes) ,and the presses running are applaud-worthy. Parties where the men and women separate, where the men talk policy and the women discuss Laurence Durrell novels are the norm.
Writers, Liz Hannah and Josh Singer seamlessly incorporate the struggle of women to gain full respect and power. Sarah Paulson as Ben’s wife, Antoinette Bradlee, gives a great performance voicing the bravery of Kay Graham. President Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell, tried to halt any chance of publication that proved 30 years of government lying. Henry Kissinger believed “ people need be put to the torch” for security breaches. The fact that Graham’s family paper was going public further complicated the decision to print.
When Hanks intones, “ The only way to protect the right to publish is to publish.” ,we think of Ellsberg willing to go to prison to stop a war. And, we especially, think of Katherine Graham willing to make a decision that could kill her newspaper, and her family’s reputation, and her three daughters’ fortunes.
The Supreme Court’s 6-3 vote in favor of freedom of the press, and Judge Black’s words: “ the press serves to the governed, not to the governor” , could not ring any clearer for this 2018 viewer.